When trying to predict whether an incoming rookie will unseat a veteran from their starters role in Carolina the common wisdom based on past results has been that John Fox prefers the vets. It makes sense to most I imagine, the more experienced players will perform better under fire, when the game is on the line. Yet that has not necessarily the rule in all cases, FS Charles Godfrey being an example of an exception. You could also point to LB Jon Beason and C Ryan Kalil, who after a single season took Justin Hartwig's spot as additional examples of Fox going with the younger player. So do the Panthers have any rookies that will be thrust into the starting line-up when the Eagles roll into town? Let's start with a look at the defense where three rookies will do just that, challenge for three of what I'm calling the Top 4 position battles on defense.
Left Defensive End
The assumption here is that Pro Bowler Julius Peppers will return and secure one of the starting positions, we will say the right side for this post. That leaves veterans Tyler Brayton, Charles Johnson, Hilee Taylor and incoming rookie Everette Brown to battle for the other spot. My other assumption is that the Panthers will only keep 4 DE's as they did last season. So do you think the rookie will be given the other spot straight into Training Camp? I'm not so sure. The initial thought is 2nd year man Taylor is the odd man out being a 7th round pick. Brayton has the benefit of also being able to play inside at DT in certain packages and Johnson has shown some promise coming off his 6 sack season. Here's my prediction: Charles Johnson wins the LDE spot because of his improved run defense play but gets replaced on 3rd down (unless its 3rd and short) by Brown. Brayton will come in on 3rd down as well in place of DT Maake Kemoeatu which leaves Taylor on the outside looking in.
I'll make my prediction on this one quick. The nickel CB spot will be rookie Sherrod Martins job to lose from day one, just as Charles Godfrey was thrown into the FS fray at the outset. Though it will advertised as a position battle Martin will run with the first team nickel package (if there is such a thing) leaving CB's Dante Wesley and CJ Wilson in back-up and special team roles. Only if he struggles to learn the coverages, which I'm doubting would he not stay in this role.
I completely missed on this one last year. I really doubted the Panthers would have paid LB Landon Johnson so much money to be a back-up last season. The fact he is coming back says he and incumbent Na'il Diggs will battle yet again. Diggs has held off challengers for three seasons now but this just may be the year he gets ousted, or will it? I would love to say Dan Conner has a shot here but he seems to be pegged as the back-up MLB. Something has to give there but I don't think it will be this season. My prediction is that Diggs keeps his spot leaving Johnson a back-up yet again who will be looking for a new job next offseason. Conner will serve as a key back-up for one more season.
If Damione Lewis fully recovers from his shoulder surgery then I think there's no doubt he is the starter over rookie DT Corvey Irvin come game one. He has the experience and had a pretty good season in 2008 until getting injured. Irvin though could crack the line-up later in the season though as I just don't see Lewis staying injury free the entire season. Irvin will push Lewis in TC and will get a lot of praise from the staff for his ‘motor'. As much as I want to say Irvin will win it I don't see it this year.
So any disagreements? I want to hear from you.